Game of the week
The line: Cowboys by 3½
The story: This is all about the NFC East, with the Giants desperate for something, anything, to stay off life support. They're on a four-game losing binge and picked to make it five straight -- but they believe they found something in last weekend's oh-so-close loss to Green Bay that will carry them here. Maybe. All I know is that they better play defense or run the ball, two elements missing this season.
If they swoon here, the division belongs to Dallas. The Cowboys will be two up with three games left, and although they must face the Giants again in Week 17, Big Blue's remaining schedule is more difficult than Dallas', so the climb would be steep, which is another way of saying, "Wait till next year."
That's not to say they can't pull off the upset. They can. The Cowboys haven't been impressive in any of their past three games, outscored 62-60 by three subpar opponents. I know, they should've won last weekend ... but they didn't. They probably shouldn't have won Thanksgiving Day ... but they did. So let's just say they're even. The bottom line is that they're not playing well, and it's that time of year, folks. With Tony Romo at quarterback, Dallas is 8-11 on or after Dec. 1.
But Romo isn't the key to Dallas' offense this year. Running back DeMarco Murray is. He gives Dallas the running game it was missing and that backs opponents off Romo ... which, considering his penchant for committing mistakes, is a good thing.
I don't want to be too hard on Romo, because the guy makes big plays, too. But he needs help, and he'll get it with the return of wide receiver Miles Austin. That makes the passing game stronger, which should make the running game stronger, which should make the Cowboys stronger.
Only one problem: That Dallas defense, specifically the secondary. Everyone is picking it apart, and I mean everyone. The past three weeks, the Cowboys have surrendered 14 completions of 20 or more yards, and that was to Rex Grossman, Matt Moore and Kevin Kolb. Terence Newman hasn't been playing well. Neither have Alan Ball or Orlando Scandrick, and that's a problem ... especially considering that Eli Manning is next.
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At some point, the Giants are going to win. Manning is playing some of the best football of his career, and the club has discovered unlikely heroes in Victor Cruz and Jake Ballard. Yeah, I know, the Giants still can't run or stop anyone with their injury-depleted defense.
In fact, they rank dead last in rushing and 29th in yards allowed and 28th in points allowed -- surrendering 87 points the past two games. Worse, they have allowed 11 touchdowns and one field goal in their past 23 series, closing out opponents on no more than three downs only twice. But they absolutely, positively must beat a Dallas team that is vulnerable ... and that makes this one close.
Something to consider: Dallas has four consecutive Sunday night losses and is 7-10 at home on Sunday nights. The Cowboys are also 0-2 vs. the Giants at their new stadium.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Bengals by 3½
The story: Houston will win the AFC South. That we know. What we don't know is what will happen to Cincinnati. The Bengals are alive for a wild-card entry to the playoffs, but they can't afford more than one loss from here on out. That means there's an urgency here, and what do I always say about desperate teams at home? Uh-huh, they're dangerous teams.
And the Bengals are all of the above.
Plus, they're facing an opponent with a rookie quarterback. T.J. Yates passed the first exam last weekend when he led the Texans to a win over Atlanta. It wasn't so much what Yates did that was so impressive; it's what he didn't do -- make mistakes. He was poised, efficient and effective, especially on a 19-play drive that consumed over 10 minutes and won the game.
But that was in Houston. This is his first road start, and that makes the learning curve more difficult. Yates has Arian Foster and Ben Tate to help carry the offense ... as well as the league's second-ranked defense to keep the game close ... but he might have to make plays here he didn't a week ago. Granted, Cincinnati did virtually nothing last weekend in Pittsburgh, but I don't know how you keep Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Cedric Benson down for a second successive game.
Apparently, bettors don't, either. Look at that line, and tell me which of these two is 9-3.
Like Yates, Dalton is a rookie, only he hasn't missed a start this season and looks like a keeper. Dalton has been unfazed by much of anything, but I would still look for Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to try to pressure and confuse him. Phillips put the heat on veteran Matt Ryan a week ago, and the result was a 17-10 victory.
But that's the way it has been for these Texans. A year ago, nobody was worse defending the pass; this season, only three others are better. Dalton will be challenged. But he's also home, he and his teammates are desperate and ... I think you know the rest of the story.
Something to consider: The Texans are second only to Green Bay in scoring on game-opening drives. They have 44 points, one behind Green Bay, on six touchdowns and a field goal.
The line: Broncos by 3½
The story: I'm surprised the line is so thin here. Chicago is coming off a devastating loss to Kansas City where its top player, running back Matt Forte, bowed out with a knee injury that could keep him sidelined the rest of the season. So now they're supposed to win in Denver, where altitude is always a factor and Tim Tebow is the next best thing to packed powder?
Sorry, I don't see it.
The Broncos are hot. The Bears are not. The Broncos believe they're going to win the AFC West, and they might be right. Three of their final four games are at home and they hold the tiebreaker vs. Oakland. Moreover, they're on a roll, with the club 6-1 since Tebow stepped in -- and, yeah, that's significant, especially since five of those victories were on the road.
People tell me he can't play, he can't win, he can't throw a spiral and he can't rally the Broncos ... or anyone for that matter ... from behind. Well, this just in: He's 6-1, his passer rating is higher than Cam Newton's or Andy Dalton's, he has 10 touchdown passes and one interception, he just brought his team back from eight-point deficits three times before winning and he scored a career-best 149.3 on his latest passing scorecard.
Miami center Mike Pouncey was right. Instead of trying to find out what's wrong with Tebow, maybe we should focus on what's right. And that's Chicago's job here.
"They run a lot," linebacker Lance Briggs said of the Broncos and their QB. "He's one heckuva football player, and we're going to have to stop that crap."
The Bears have active linebackers like Briggs who can chase down Tebow, and I know because I watched them vs. Philadelphia and Michael Vick. Vick did nothing that evening, held to 34 yards rushing and no touchdown passes. The difference here is Vick makes mistakes that Tebow does not, and I don't give a rip how many passes Tebow throws. He doesn't throw them to the wrong jerseys.
Chicago's Caleb Hanie has almost 100 fewer attempts. He has six interceptions. Tebow has one. Time to channel Mike Pouncey again.
Denver's job here is its job every week -- namely, to keep the game close. And if it's within reach in the fourth period, it's over for Chicago. Chicago's goal, of course, is to stuff the Broncos' running game and make Tebow beat them with the pass. He can do it, but running the option is his strength.
That wasn't supposed to cut it in the pros, and the Broncos weren't supposed to last. But every week the next opponent knows exactly what Tebow and the Broncos are going to do ... and every week they can't stop them. At what point do we start paying attention to results?
Something to consider: The Broncos are one of five teams in NFL history to go into the fourth quarters of five consecutive games within three points of their opponents. They're the only club to win all five.
The line: Packers by 10½
|Running short on offensive weapons, Carson Palmer likely won't be able to keep the Raiders close in Green Bay. (Getty Images)|
Nevertheless, I would like Oakland's chances a lot more if Darren McFadden were coming back, but he's not. He'll miss his sixth consecutive game. I would like its chances if wide receivers Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore were back, too, but the last time I checked, they weren't practicing.
Look, I don't have illusions about what the Raiders defense will do vs. Aaron Rodgers. Oakland couldn't stop Matt Moore and Reggie Bush, so I don't see how it handles Rodgers and his cadre of receivers. But it's the Oakland offense that's the issue here. With McFadden and his sprint-relay team of wide receivers, Carson Palmer could turn this thing into a track meet.
But the Raiders are handicapped ... again ... and that might be OK if the opponent were anyone but Green Bay. The Packers haven't lost since last December, and sound serious about running the table. This game is one of their last significant obstacles, so I imagine they dial up their "A" game and take it from there.
But the Raiders? Who knows? I loved what they were doing until they flew to Miami. Now, I don't know what to make of them, other than they're still a tough out on the road (4-2).
But let's say they lose here, which is what most people expect. They're not doomed. They have games left against Detroit, Kansas City and San Diego, and they draw the Lions and Chargers at home. Win those, and they finish 10-6. That should punch a ticket to the playoffs.
Something to consider: With a victory, the Packers become the eighth team to start the year 13-0 and only the second defending Super Bowl champion (after the 1998 Broncos) to do it.
Monday night lights
The line: Seahawks by 6½
The story: I thought ESPN could not draw a worse game than San Diego at Jacksonville. I was wrong. This is that game.
If there were no Indianapolis, the Rams would be the league's bottom feeder. In fact, I spoke to a scout this week who studied videotapes of the Rams and declared them "the worst team I've seen in years," which, considering the Lions went 0-16 only three years ago, is a bold statement.
Bad enough that they stink with Sam Bradford and A.J. Feeley throwing passes, but Feeley is out and Bradford is iffy again with that injured ankle. Meaning? Meaning someone named Tom Brandstater could be the quarterback du jour.
It's the second successive week Monday Night Football has featured two losing teams, and I can't imagine anything more scintillating than last week's Chargers-Jags game. I can, however, imagine something less. At least San Diego could score. St. Louis is 31st in offense and dead last in scoring. Seattle is 28th in offense and 26th in scoring.
Someone pass the remote.
Something to consider: Referee Bill Leavy, who worked the Seahawks' Super Bowl loss to Pittsburgh, officiates this game -- his first game in Seattle since Super Bowl XL. Leavy, who has worked two regular-season games involving Seattle in the past five years (both on the road), will work with a different crew than he had in the Super Bowl.
Crummy game of the week
The line: Bucs by 1½
The story: Now, more than ever, I'm convinced Jacksonville needs someone who knows quarterbacks as its next head coach. Either that, or draft another quarterback.
After watching Blaine Gabbert on Monday vs. San Diego, I'm beginning to wonder if the Jaguars have their quarterback of the future. I know he doesn't have receivers or much of an offensive line. But, geez Louise is he inaccurate. Somebody needs to work with this guy and work with him now; surround him with players and coaches who make him better.
Otherwise, the Jaguars are 10 guys and Maurice Jones-Drew again.
Bottom line: Tampa Bay stinks. Jacksonville stinks. The Jags are in the market for a new head coach, and the Bucs might be. If there's a difference here it's the quarterbacks. Josh Freeman looks like he'll play, and he has proven he can win. Gabbert has not.
Something to consider: Jones-Drew aims for his fourth consecutive 100-yard rushing game. Jacksonville is 16-6 when he runs for 100 or more yards.
Upset of the week
The story: It's now or never for the G-Men, and I make it now. The Giants seem to respond to urgency, and there's no more important game this season. Win it, and they're tied for first in their division; lose it, and their playoff hopes are all but dashed.
I like that. I also like that their rushing attack finally did something last week. For the first time since Nov. 6, the Giants ran for 100 yards. I like that Eli Manning has won his past three in Dallas, too, and that Tom Coughlin is 5-2 vs. the Cowboys. Most of all, I like that the Giants pushed Green Bay harder than anyone since New Orleans in the season opener.
Granted, the Giants are so porous on defense that Justin Tuck this week admitted, "It makes me sick to my stomach." It should. They give up too many big plays. But so do the Cowboys. Plus, Dallas is reeling after last weekend's overtime loss to Arizona, with CBS analyst Bill Cowher saying the Cowboys' beleaguered coach, Jason Garrett, "is coaching scared, with a defeatist attitude."
Maybe. But maybe Garrett and the Cowboys wake up here. Maybe the loss of safety Kenny Phillips is the blow that buries New York once and for all. I don't know. What I do know is that this game is essential to one club, and it's not Dallas.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh: His Ravens are 6-0 at home this season and draw winless Indianapolis.
2. Atlanta running back Michael Turner: He has five 100-yard games in his past six starts vs. Carolina, with 651 yards and 11 touchdowns.
3. New England wide receiver Wes Welker: In his past two starts vs. NFC teams, he has 17 catches for 251 yards and two TDs.
4. San Francisco running back Frank Gore: He has 11 touchdowns in his past 10 games vs. Arizona.
5. N.Y. Giants quarterback Eli Manning: He has 10 touchdown passes in his past four starts vs. Dallas, three of which he won, and aims for his fifth straight against the Cowboys with at least two TD passes.
Five best faceoffs
1. Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen vs. Detroit: There will be no welcome wagon waiting on the Vikings defensive star when he and his teammates pull into Motown -- unless, of course, it's there to run him over. That's because Allen is tougher on Detroit than the Texas Rangers, calling it "depressing" in a radio interview on Minneapolis' KFAN this week. "It's gloomy. It sucks," he said. "If I had to live in Detroit I think I'd just drown myself in the river that was across the way." Just a hunch, but it's the Vikings' offense that gets introduced this week.
2. Giants safety Antrel Rolle vs. Jeane Dixon: Rolle is the latest NFL psychic to look into the future and see nothing but good for his team. Though the Giants are on a four-game slide, he insists there's "no doubt" they make the playoffs. Of course, he said the same thing last year ... and he was wrong.
3. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco vs. fumble-itis: The Ravens quarterback leads the league with 11 fumbles, including at least one in seven consecutive games. His 11 fumbles tie his career high, set when Flacco was a rookie. "I'm doing all I can to keep two hands on the ball and not let that stuff happen," he said.
4. Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware vs. Giants defensive end Justin Tuck: Ware is the Cowboys' best defensive player; Tuck was the Giants' ... before he was saddled with injuries that cramped his play. Anyway, Tuck is on record saying that he "hates" the Cowboys and allegedly called their new stadium is a dump. OK, fine, it's a free country. Which is why Ware fired back, saying Tuck is jealous and "maybe he wants to play here. Everybody wants to play for the Cowboys." Uh, not everyone. "I don't need a star on my helmet to feel I'm pretty good at what I do," said Tuck.
5. Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick vs. common sense: Vick returns to the field this week and vows to play smarter football -- meaning he is open to sliding to avoid the next tackler. "I'm sliding now," he said this week. "I'm getting down. I've made my mind up. There's going to be times when I can't get those extra yards, but I have to get down." Vick missed the past three games because of broken ribs, the second time in two seasons he was sidelined by injuries.
Five things that may interest only me
1. Since 2006, San Diego has the best record in the final four games of the season. The Chargers are 19-1. New England is second at 18-2, with eight straight wins in December. The Chargers also have the best record vs. division opponents in December/January since 2006. They're 10-1.
2. With a defeat of Washington, New England becomes the third team in NFL history to reach 10 victories in each of nine consecutive seasons. The others are San Francisco (16) and Indianapolis (9).
3. New England's Wes Welker leads the league with 93 catches. With seven more, he will join Marvin Harrison and Hall of Famer Jerry Rice as the only receivers to produce four years of 100 or more catches.
4. Ten of the past 26 games between Dallas and the Giants have been decided by four or fewer points -- with three going to overtime.
5. Denver's Matt Prater is the first kicker since John Kasay (Carolina, 2003) to win three games on the road with field goals in overtime or at the end of regulation.
Numbers on the wall
1: Offensive touchdowns surrendered by Houston in the past two weeks
5: Game-winning comebacks in the fourth quarter or overtime for Tim Tebow
7: Number of times the Giants have signed quarterback Ryan Perilloux to their practice squad this year
8: Consecutive games with a Marshawn Lynch TD
8-1: The Falcons' record vs. rookie QBs under Mike Smith
12-26: Houston coach Gary Kubiak's career record on instant-replay challenges
18: Consecutive Green Bay wins, including the playoffs
98: Detroit points off turnovers, an NFL high
194-61: Houston vs. opponents in the first half
• Baltimore: Sunny, high of 44
• Charlotte, N.C.: Sunny, high of 48
• Cincinnati: Sunny, high of 41
• Detroit: Dome
• Jacksonville, Fla.: Scattered showers, high of 62
• Miami: Scattered showers, high of 80
• East Rutherford, N.J.: Sunny, high of 41
• Nashville, Tenn.: Mostly sunny, high of 48
• Landover, Md.: Sunny, high of 42
• Glendale, Ariz.: Sunny, high of 65 (retractable roof)
• Denver: Sunny, high of 47
• San Diego: Partly cloudy, high of 62
• Green Bay, Wis.: Sunny, high of 36
• Arlington, Texas: Partly cloudy, high of 48 (retractable roof)
Where we will be
• I'll be in Denver to take in Tebowpalooza.
• Pete Prisco will be in Dallas to offer Jerry Jones a Romo-Seltzer.
• Mike Freeman will be at MetLife Stadium to track Haley's Comet.
• Gregg Doyel will be in Cincinnati to recite Yates.